HOW TO: Get Killer Mixes Using NLE Limiters

HOW TO: Get Killer Mixes Using NLE Limiters

There’s a lot of tools which come standard in every Non Linear Editor. In the world of audio, almost all of them go unused by most editors. But there’s one which saves the day with wildly dynamic sounds over and over. Let’s jump in an start using NLE Limiters in our timelines, folks. Here’s how:

Do I Really Need a Limiter In My Timeline? I’ve never needed one before.

The politically correct thing to say is “possibly,” but the real answer is “uh… Yeah, dude.”

“Lewis, I’m trying to expand my creative output not limit it! This is a total buzz kill of my flow, man…”

Sure. I understand. And, while we’re all feeling good, we have to remember that sometimes we get a dialog clip which is just so wildly dynamic that it

Premiere limiter
The Adobe Premiere Hard Limiter

nearly fries our speakers every time we play over it. We don’t have time to fix it, but it blows us away every time…and makes the director/filmmaker mad. Bad. Bigger buzz kill. Also, for those of you who aren’t ever going to take my advice and work with your audio in a Digital Audio Workstation, you’ve got to be able to compete in the ever widening loudness war, which means you have to turn up your masters as loud as you can without going over zero dB. Yeah. How do you do that? Easy. With a limiter. They’re in every NLE, and although some are better than others, they generally do the same thing: you drop it on your clip or master out, tell it what level you want the level to max out at, and go back to work. Nice right?

Where Would I Use Them?

Limiters are really a function of nuclear powered Compressors. You can read more about compressors in this article and this article.

But do be careful when using them, because their far more draconian ways, you may end up squelching a perfectly good sound accidentally.

On Dynamic Clips

If you have a clip which is highly dynamic: meaning there’s really loud louds and really soft softs – all within the same clip, you’ll want to drop a limiter on this clip. What it does is takes the louds and mashes them down to wherever you say the volume needs to be. Naturally, if you make the volume too low it’ll start sounding a someone’s getting punched in the gut every time they speak. This also applies to music, sound effects and anything which is just too dynamic.

On Your Master Audio Output

There is no way to create an appropriate audio deliverable without a limiter at the “end of the chain” of plugins on your master output. “Mark, I’m using Adobe Premiere, I can’t put plugins on that audio channel.” Yes. I’m sorry to say that’s true. But you don’t have an issue, because you can just dynamically link your audio to Adobe Audition, and you’re good to go (which you should do for a final output anyway). Your Davinci Resolve and FCPX folks are good to go – with a couple of exceptions.

For DR, you’ll need to jump through some hoops – all covered in your manual – to get your Limiter onto the Master Output. It all stems around opening the keyframes panel and viewing the plugins you’ve dropped on the master output track from the inspector.

For FCPX folks, there’s no way to drop plugins onto the timeline so that it affects all audio clips unless you “nest” all clips into a compound clip as covered in this article.

“Lewis, look, I never have to make the final audio deliverables. That’s what I have audio people for.”

Sure. I understand. You say that right up until the filmmaker runs out of time for the festival deadline and has to make a rough master for them to approve. You think you’re going to have time to bring in the audio guy? Or how about you’re the last man standing in the post process, because it’s a Youtube delivery? Yep. It’s you making the deliverables, and you’ll want to use a limiter on your master output.

Why? Because if you don’t, and if you’re mixing at a level which can compete, you’ll go over. Sound which goes over is horrible, and your audience will think so too. A limiter keeps that from happening. You can hit a limiter with all your might, but it’ll never go over and it’ll never “distort.” I mean, you’ll have a heck of a lot of “pumping” sounds if you hit it really hard with loud sounds, but you’ll not go over zero.

With a limiter on your master output you can insert an EQ and an easy compressor beforehand and be able to wonderfully contour your mix in a way that 95% of editors have no idea is even possible. We speak about all of this at length in the MZed Pro Member Education and in other articles here on Cinema Sound

How Do I Use Them?

They’re pretty easy to use. You have only a few parameters to deal with:

  1. Input. This tells the plugin how loud it can make the signal coming to it. If you have a very quiet audio clip, you may want to turn this up.
  2. Drive/Threshold. Unless you’re dropping this onto your master output, you’ll want to leave this at the minimum setting. Use this only when you want to start fighting the loudness war.
  3. Look Ahead. I generally set this to 10 ms. It allows the plugin to “look ahead” to see what’s coming and get ready for it.
  4. Release. This tells the plugin how fast it can “release” the limited signal once it goes below the maximum output. You’ll want this, ideally at 5 ms. If you can’t get there, then you’ll want it as low as possible.
  5. Output Ceiling/Maximum Output. This determines what the final output level will be. The lower make this the quieter the overall sound will be and the more “Smashing” of the signal there will be. But do remember, the more you smash it, the more you can turn up what’s left.
  6. If you have other plugins in the chain, be sure the limiter as at the “end” of that chain.

If you’re doing limiting on a clip, then you can fool with the settings any way you want to get the best result. For generally dynamic clips, set the release

Good setting
A generally good Limiter setting for Master Output Use in Premiere

and output Ceiling as outlined above. Then adjust the threshold/drive until you get a sound that seems a good balance between “crushed” and too dynamic. It’ll take you all of 15 seconds.

If you’re doing limiting on a master output, then you’ll want your Maximum Output to be -.2 dB. This keeps the over light from illuminated on Quality Control’s console, and eliminates your need to talk your way out of a lousy phone call with them. The rest of the settings should be followed from above.

Now for you Final Cut Pro X People, you’re going to have to do what this article says in order to get these kinds of results on your master channel, because like Premiere, there’s no way to put plugins on your master audio channel.

Limiters aren’t all that sexy. They don’t even do much or have a lot of bells and whistles. But without a limiter in your mix, it’s impossible to be compliant with any kind of delivery, and it’s certainly impossible to keep your mixes from going over zero if you’re intending to compete in the loudness war. Drop one in, and see if you aren’t made a believer right away.

Had your own experiences with limiters in your NLE? Let us know about it or Tweet about it!

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